Aaron Lee Tasjan

by Corey O'Flanagan

Aaron Lee Tasjan, who looks like a character from That '70s Show but sounds a bit like Tom Petty, makes a kind of unpredictable, mind-bending music that addresses concerns specific to his generation: digital overload, mental health, identity. But this isn't the confessional songwriting you're used to. It's presented with a nod and a wink to take the edge off.

After bouncing from Delaware to California, to New York City, Tasjan's current home is Nashville, where he spoke to us about his latest album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, and some tracks from his back catalogue. He was recently interviewed by Sir Elton John, which is where we'll start.

Elton John

I think someone sent him the record a long time ago before it came out - we had a mutual friend. I never heard anything back and thought it probably got lost in the shuffle, and then one day I started getting all of these text messages from people, like, "Hey, I'm listening to Elton John's radio show and I'm pretty sure he just played your music on it," which was a total surprise. I couldn't believe Elton was playing my music on his show.

And then maybe a month later or so, somebody reached out on email from his show and said he wanted me to come on the show, and that was even freakier. He was in England and they were on British summer time over there. He called me, he was in the studio, and for him it was the middle of the day but for me it was like 7 in the morning. Very early, especially in musician/songwriter time. My FaceTime rings and I open it up, and there is Elton John dressed in this flawless red suit with matching red glasses on. Talk about Angel of the Morning...

If You Had To Pick One Elton Song To Cover

This is kind of funny because I have a story about this. I was opening a couple of shows at the end of 2019 for Greta Van Fleet, and - this may surprise some people - they have a very young audience. I thought surely their audience is older people that loved Led Zeppelin, and there is some of that, but it's mainly young people. When you walk out on stage, the first 10 rows or so is kids that look like they're anywhere from 15 years old to college age. They started blowing up my Instagram account after the first night that we opened for them, begging me to cover "Crocodile Rock" by Elton John.  

Kids are the coolest. It's who rock and roll is really for, even though it's a more difficult world to navigate if you are underage in terms of going to shows and stuff like that. So I was so excited they were reaching out, and I did end up working up a version of "Crocodile Rock," but I played it on electric guitar instead of piano, and we did it as a power trio: just guitar, bass, and drums.

So it was really, really, fun to do. We didn't have time to rehearse, so we just walked out on stage in front of 4000 people at the Metropolitan Opera House in Philadelphia and winged a version of "Crocodile Rock," and as soon as we started playing it the place went nuts, so it was a cool moment.

The New York Dolls

Tasjan played in the New York Dolls from 2008-2009.

The Dolls are such an interesting camp to be able to spend some time in. They really know first-hand how fickle the music industry is, and I think that would be evident to anybody who really knew the history of rock and roll because the New York Dolls were a tremendously influential band in spite of the fact that they were never a particularly famous or popular band. They were one of those bands that probably hundreds of bands have been started as a result of their existence.

What I learned more than anything is, you have to find your self-love in every minute of it. In other words, if you're in a van driving to a show to play to 100 people in a club and you're thinking, someday this going to get better or someday this is going to be enjoyable when I'm more famous, you're already screwed if that's your mentality. You need to be having just as much fun in that van playing to 100 people as you are when you get really lucky and you get to play a big show or festival. It all should be equally electrifying for you.

I think it's good to have goals and be ambitious and want to do more and have a bigger audience or sell more records, but the trick is to have fun the whole time. Cowboy Jack is a big guy here - Cowboy Jack Clement, here in Nashville.1 He's a big hero of a lot of ours. A lot of us still record at his recording studio. He used to say, "We're not in the music business, we're in the fun business, and it only takes three-and-a-half minutes to cut a song, so we may as well enjoy this time while we have it."

The Song He's Writing Today

This particular song is an interesting one. It's kind of almost like a mantra song. I think of folks like George Harrison who've done that before, but also like Lee Mavers - I'm repping his shirt so I may as well throw some Lee Mavers out there. I just love his whole thing so much. Any guy that can do everything that Noel Gallagher did for his entire career in one song is definitely a hero of mine.

But anyway, Lee has songs like that where he finds these phrases and they're typically tied to a really catchy melody as well, but he'll just repeat them over and over and over again, almost like a child would, or like a nursery rhyme. So the song I was working on today was definitely coming from that place. I had a line in my mind that was really simple that I really liked a lot: "Love - it's sunny then it's raining," which I just say over and over again because that's how love feels to me. It's something you have to care for. Love is not always going to be what the connotation of the word is. If you're going to truly inhabit the feeling and the emotion, you have to be ready for the fact that it's going to hurt really badly sometimes.

Over the course of the song, I slowly morph the lyrics from "It's sunny then it's raining" to "it's sunny when it's raining," which is also how love feels to me. Sometimes those terrifying and really beautiful, exciting things happen at the same time.

I was trying hard to have an economy of words. I love when Iggy Pop talks about writing songs and how he was informed by the Ovaltine competition where you had to write in but it had to be 10 words or less. He took that approach with songs. I have been typically a more verbose lyricist - I love words, I love language, I love trying to get all sorts of different things into songs. But what I really came to today with this song was something really simple that said what I wanted to say with no fuss, nothing covering up the truth of what was there. Even the little musical lines I was coming up with to go along with the chords on guitar are really simple, they just repeat in certain sections like the vocal does.

So I've tried to make it all one breath, if you will. One smooth inhale and one smooth exhale so that the song feels kind of like a sigh of relief when you hear it.

I love to borrow ideas from other places and apply them to songwriting. I think of Miles Davis, who went through a period of his career where his thing was, "How much can I say on a solo with one note?" When you distill it down to that level of simplicity you can learn a lot about your process. Even if this song never comes out, I still feel like the time I spent on it today was worthwhile because I learned a little bit about how doing something that simple feels, and it's not typically what I do.

"Computer Of Love"

A lot of those lines just came straight out of my day. I'm a very observational songwriter. Even when it's something super personal, a lot of times I feel like I'm watching it happen to me and I'm writing it down. But those lines ["May the guitar rest in peace..."], Eric Clapton was in the news and they'd say something like, "The guitar is over and nothing new can be done with the electric guitar." I laugh when I see those kinds of things because I feel like so many of those opinions are born of what people are personally experiencing, and if you're a guy like Clapton, even if you're trying to have your ear to the ground, it might be difficult because you can't just walk into a record store and stand at the listening booth for hours. I would assume you have to get in there, get what you want and get out before you get mobbed. So that line was related to something he said that I saw in the news.

I'm always feeling like I have to consider what kind of role social media has played in my life. As an artist, I've used it to help build a platform, and I think it can be great for that kind of stuff, but then you have to maintain it, and the maintenance can be taxing on your mental health and your emotional health. You see things you don't need to see, that you don't want to see, so I'm always very aware of how I feel about things, and I think as a songwriter a lot of times I'm just directly channeling that into my own lyrics.  

The reason I have a healthy relationship with social media is because I'm aware of the parts of it that are unhealthy for me and I'm doing my best to police that. Not in an obsessive, negative way, just in a way to take care of myself and make sure that I have the energy and the frame of mind to get up and do it again tomorrow, because I know there's that part of my career where I'm going to have to get on there and tell people about my shows and tell people about my records and tell people about whatever else we're doing, so I want to make sure I manage it in a way that it can continue to be a place that I can go back to and feel safe in, and that is a challenge in this day and age.

"Up All Night"

What's interesting about this song is it went through several iterations before it reached its final current form. It started out as something my co-producer, Gregory Lattimer, put together in his studio by himself. He came to me and said, "I have this chorus and I have these chords."

For as long as I've been making records, some person who has reviewed it, no matter which album it is, has said it reminds them of Tom Petty in some way, shape or form. In fact, when I was making my very first record, In The Blazes, I was recording it in Van Nuys at New Monkey Studios, and this guy showed up. He was a friend of the producer and we were working on a song about the East National - a song about a train - and he's standing there and he's kind of listening to the song for a minute. He turns to me and he says, "Man, this kind of reminds me of when I used to work with Tom Petty." It turned out to be Phil Jones, who was Tom Petty's drummer on stuff like "Free Fallin'." He had come over to the studio that day just to visit and say hey to our producer, Eli.

But even Phil Jones, who played with Tom, came and said that. I am never offended by it, I love Tom Petty, but I think my co-producer Greg was thinking to that end. If everyone is just going to say it, why don't we just get this over with, almost in a punk-rock way.

So he had written that, and it did sound very Petty-ish, and I wrote some verse lyrics and we tried a version of the song that I had the verse to, and there was just something about it that felt a little too on the nose. I thought it's fine to have a Petty vibe but we need to have our own stamp on it as well. We can't just straight-up rip.

So, I rewrote the song on piano. There's a very insistent synth riff happening through the whole song, and that was based off of the way that I rewrote the song on the piano, and when I wrote the song on the piano the verses came to me in a different way, a whole new set of words. Everything coalesced, and that was after Greg had already demoed the song. I wrote lyrics to it, then we did a demo of that version.

Here's the thing about me: I'm never afraid to continue to work on a song as long as I feel like it's making it better. I'm never afraid to scrap lyrics, and with almost every song I do, I'm writing the lyrics up until the moment I sing it on the record because I really take my time with words and it all has to flow. It doesn't necessarily have to mean a bunch of amazing stuff, but it has to flow and sing right and phrase right. So, when we got into that third time where I was doing the piano and the synthesizer stuff and less focus on the guitar, we were creating this world around it that sonically felt like an ode to everything from ELO to Roy Orbison. It felt like the Traveling Wilburys, which Tom was a part of, which I also love.

So, it became this blend of things, and then also through some of the psychedelic elements and some of the stuff I did with the guitar work and making that sound more like keyboards, it started to get its own voice. I am never worried about wearing my influences on my sleeve, but I want to always make sure that my voice is my stamp, is present, and is part of that. And there's enough of it there that people can feel that naturally when they hear it.  

Layers Of Production On New Album

I wanted to ultimately make a songwriter record where the songs were the focus that also felt sonically interesting and exciting to me. I'm a huge fan of simplicity as well. I love an album like Tree Of Forgiveness by John Prine that Dave Cobb produced. I think that is just all of those people absolutely in their element. No one is writing songs as good as John Prine - in Nashville anyway - and Dave Cobb, his sensibilities around songwriter records like that are flawless. His work with Jason Isbell is phenomenal, his work with Brandi Carlile is phenomenal. When it comes to that kind of stuff, that guy really is on the ball and does a fantastic job.

I love that, but then I thought there's also another thing that we can bring to the table and have a record that feels like as much thought and effort has been put behind an interesting, more layered production. So it was trying to marry those two worlds together on this album and create something that felt intimate like a songwriter album, but then also have more interesting layers. I love Brian Wilson, but I also love Tame Impala and stuff like that, which I listen to just for the production a lot of times. So, trying to marry those two things was the idea. 

"12 Bar Blues"

It definitely fell into the category of "write what you know." That was just my experience. When I lived in New York I was a barfly, basically. I would go to 11th Street Bar which I mention in that song, just about every day of the week and oftentimes I would get there when it opened at noon or something like that. I'd sit there until my friend Clay, who worked over at the Varvatos store on Bowery, he'd get off of work and then he'd come over and we'd sit there. Then at the end of the night, everyone would leave and Kenny would lock the door and put on Tom Petty's Greatest Hits, and we would all sit there and smoke cigarettes and talk about Tom and how much we loved Tom. That was my life for a long time.

One of the things that is powerful for the listener is being seen or feeling seen in a song that you're hearing. It's almost like figuring out that someone is also a fan of the same sports team you are - it's an instant thing that bonds you with everyone else in the room who is having that same experience and the artist who is on stage sharing that song.

I think it was Kant, the philosopher, that used to say music is the highest of all art forms because it exists in all of these places at the same time - it's on the sheet of the music of the person that's playing it, it's in the head of the person that wrote it, it's in the ears and the minds of the audience that's hearing it, it's in the thoughts and the feelings of the musicians that play it, and it occupies all these physical and spiritual places simultaneously. It is one of the few things that exist in the world that is actual magic, when you affect something in the real world with something that isn't a tangible, real thing. To me, that's what magic is, and a song is magic because it's not like a tangible thing that you can hold in your hand or wear or anything like that, but it affects the world around you just the same. The same way that it would if you spilled a drink on somebody by accident or gave someone a high five. It changes the molecules in the room, and that's why I love songs so much.

What's Next

I am booking shows. My first solo show is going to be on the rooftop of a hotel downtown in Nashville called the Bobby Hotel, and I'm doing that at the end of this month. Then for the rest of the summer I am going to be doing a series of outdoor concerts that are going to be in parks and outdoor amphitheatres. A lot of these shows are going to be free and they're going to be in really beautiful, interesting spots, some of which I've never been to in my entire life. We're going to Kokomo, Indiana. If there is anything we know about Mike Love, it's that he would probably confuse Indiana for a tropical paradise.

Who Should We Have On The Podcast Next?

I'll tell you who my current favorite is. A young lady from here in Nashville. Just like Madonna, she only needs one name, and she goes by Tristen. She made one of my favorite albums of all time that I still listen to a lot in 2017, called Sneaker Waves, and I think she's dropped three new singles from her new record, and they're all absolutely phenomenal.

She's an incredible writer. She's able to write from her shadow-self perspective in this way that I really identify with. These are things I would probably be more comfortable pushing down in some way, or forgetting about, or trying to ignore, and she'll just bring that right to the forefront of the song, but she does it with so much compassion for herself and for others.

June 9, 2021

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Tour dates (it feels good to write that!) and more at aaronleetasjan.com


  • 1] Clement died in 2013 (back)

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